Monday, July 7, 2008

Lisey's Story

On the road trip, I read entirely Stephen King's 2006 "horror" novel Lisey's Story. I had just recently finished Duma Key, and I was sort of impressed. I had heard fairly good things about Lisey's Story, so I thought I'd pick it up.

In my review of
Duma Key, I wrote about King's trademarks, such as coining phrases as shorthand for things, and the constant revisiting to the theme of the creation of stories and the telling of stories as conduits. Consistently, King carefully dusts off the idea that the storytellers and the artists are merely portals (figuratively and literally sometimes) and that stories are bigger than people or places.

Well... in
Lisey's Story, he finally comes out and says it. The stories we tell are merely fishes we've net from the story-pool. It's not an idea invented by King, it's something humanity has toyed with forever, but in this novel... King does it very well.

Lisey is the widow of Scott Landon, famous author and winner of numerous prestigious literary awards. Two years after he's died, Lisey finally starts to unlock painful and mysterious memories about Scott and about Scott's past and about his own stories. These memories may be the only thing that keeps her from being killed at the hands of an unhinged Scott Landon fan.

The story is incredibly psychological. This is King channeling The Master to the best of his abilities. We spend practically the entire novel in Lisey's thoughts and memories as King weaves a complicated structure of reliving the past and escaping the present. For a good part of the novel, I was simply enjoying the quality of the prose (obviously King agonized over some carefully selected sentences like Flaubert would) and the numerous coinages and phrases he invented (or stole, see the afterword). But then, as the layers upon layers of memories got more complicated, I put on my "literary criticism" hat and started looking past the surface, past the story-pool's mirrored surface into the deeper waters of symbolism and metaphor, if I might paraphrase King's central thesis here.

King's novel channels more than just Henry James or Flaubert; he's practicing Mrs. Dalloway and Stephen Dedalus with the level of stream-of-consciousness he's playing with. This might be King at his most deeply psychological. Lisey comes across so vividly sometimes that it's majestic, as a real breathing human with common thoughts and anxieties.

Unfortunately, there are flaws in this novel, that stops it from rising to the lofty heights of the aforementioned authors. Lisey might seem real sometimes, but not all the time. More real than anybody else is the dead author at the centre, Scott Landon, an author sort of kind of like King himself. The most real character in the book is the dead one? I'm not sure if that's intended, but it doesn't matter - it's a flaw.

Of course, the horror in the novel itself is okay and entertaining, but nothing like the layered memory games that King plays in the novel's middle sections. In fact, the climax is seen from so far away that I want to quote the fictional editor in the novel and say that "the plot creaks a bit there, old boy".

It doesn't ruin the novel at all, but keeps it from floating with the greats. No, it's simply another Stephen King novel that's quite a bit better than most pop-lit superstars but not nearly at the level of the masters that he's so obviously inspired by.

I really liked this book, but I didn't love it. I'll stick with King, and see what he produces as his ambitions grow, and hopefully he rocks my socks off, like I think he might be able to do.

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